An Iraq War veteran congressman wants to protect religious dog tags after the military bowed to pressure from a secularist group.
In August, the Army, Air Force, and the Marine Corps ordered the company Shields of Strength to stop selling replica dog tags that feature both official military logos and Scripture, following complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Rep. Greg Steube (R., Fla.) wants to overturn that ban with a new bill that will explicitly authorize the sale of religiously themed dog tags. He said the ban insults many of the troops who risk their lives for the country by hiding the reason they serve.
"Your dog tags are those very personal things. They go with you everywhere you go," Steube told the Washington Free Beacon. "It was obviously very frustrating for somebody who served. Obviously my faith is important, as is the faith of many service members."
Steube's bill is the latest chapter in the cultural skirmishes over the role of religion in the U.S. military. Secularists have continued to resist what they consider the fusion of church and state across the country, protesting a wide range of things—from Bibles in V.A. hospitals to religious dog tags. The issue reached the Supreme Court as recently as 2019 when justices declared a memorial cross constitutional in American Legion v. American Humanist Association.
Shields of Strength has shipped more than four million replica dog tags, selling its unofficial identification to service members since the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. The company's dog tags have since become a staple of U.S. military life, according to documents submitted by First Liberty, a First Amendment group challenging the military's decision. Nine out of ten operational units have received the dog tags since 2002.
While Steube never used Shields of Strength products, he did customize his dog tags with a cross when he served in Iraq from 2004 to 2008 in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. He said the cross gave him the strength to push on in a "very volatile environment."
"When I deployed, my father had a small metal cross that he drilled a hole in, and I added it to my dog tag," he said. "Being able to carry something like that when you can't always carry pictures and memorabilia and things like that on a mission, I think is very important to service members."
First Liberty appealed the decision in December and has convinced the Army to allow Shields of Strength to produce replica dog tags that feature three previously agreed upon Bible verses. Michael Berry, the group's director of military affairs, applauded Steube's legislation.
"This bill would effectively end the controversy and solve this problem once and for all," Berry said. "Shields of Strength items are a source of inspiration and encouragement to those who go into harm’s way for our nation. The very least we can do is to remove any obstacles that deny them access to Shields of Strength items."
Not everyone is happy with the bill. MRFF president Michael Weinstein accused Steube of treason, saying that the attempt to protect soldiers' religious dog tags was "the best example of a domestic enemy that I've seen recently." He said the bill critically undermines the secular nature of the American government.
"Why don't [Steube] and those who are supporting his bill just shred it and move forward with a new bill that would declare fundamentalist Christianity as the official religion of the United States of America and their version of fundamentalist Jesus Christ as the official lord and savior of America?" Weinstein told the Free Beacon. "Because they do one and the same thing."
The congressman stressed that his legislation did not jeopardize the separation of church and state because the bill was not forcing service members to wear religious items. It would be "completely voluntary" to wear such dog tags, Steube said.
Shields of Strength, which did not respond to a request for comment, has pulled most religious dog tags from its online store, except for some Army-themed dog tags. First Liberty has yet to submit an appeal to the Air Force, while the Marines have yet to respond to the group's inquiry. Steube's bill was referred to the House Committee on Armed Services.